When the Nevada Supreme Court Tackled Racial Bias

Black Lives Matter Protest, Las Vegas, Nevada, May 29, 2020 (Shutterstock)

Thirty years ago, seeking to address “the civil unrest in Las Vegas” triggered by decades-long discrimination against Black people throughout the criminal justice system, the Nevada Supreme Court created a special task force to study racial and economic bias in Nevada’s own justice system. The court provided the task force with a clear mission and instructions. First, identify how racial bias affects different areas of Nevada’s justice system and then develop a solution for how it can be eradicated. The endeavor was ambitious. Over $200,000 was apportioned to the committee for funding. More than two dozen state agencies and state leaders were called to assist. The task force even contracted with Nevada’s largest universities to conduct statistical research into the issue. The final product was an almost 300-page report published in 1997 with recommendations that were developed by the task force as meaningful solutions to ending inequitable treatment for Black citizens.

Now is a good time to revisit the report and its recommendations. A mere two years ago, Las Vegas experienced months of racial justice protests in response to the police-killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. The scale and scope of the protests in Las Vegas cannot be overstated: journalists, public defenders, and a future-judge were arrested; one officer was shot; and a civilian was shot to death. Political leaders even sought to show solidarity with policing reform. The Nevada Legislature, governor, and the Clark County Commission each declared racism a public health crisis. During a special session devoted to “[s]ocial justice reform legislation” (among other things), the Legislature passed laws prohibiting chokeholds and rolling back some of the police officers’ bill of rights. 

It’s difficult not to see a parallel between the 1997 Nevada Supreme Court Task Force Report and the 2020 protests.  The creation of the task force in the winter of 1992 was a response to recent protests over police violence. In 1990, local citizens marched the streets of Las Vegas in protest against police brutality towards Black people. That wave of protests were a response to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police’s wrongful killing of Charles Bush, an unarmed 39-year-old local Black man.  Just two years later, in 1992, Las Vegans took to the streets again in record numbers to protest the Rodney King verdict. At a time when racial tension reached an impregnable high in America, a jury acquitted four police officers of assault for the brutal beating of an unarmed Black Los Angeles man, Rodney King. The aftermath of the Rodney King verdict sent a wave of outrage and resentment across the nation which boiled over into protests and riots in several cities, including Las Vegas.

Initially, the Las Vegas response was nonviolent. Concerned local citizens banded together and peacefully marched through the city to downtown Las Vegas. But after police officers forced the group to cease marching, a series of events unfolded which culminated in violent unrest and riots in the city. Local government offices and services were shut down, schools were closed, and the police and fire departments stopped responding to calls. The city imposed a curfew. Over the course of a day over $6 million dollars in damage had resulted from the rioting. 

In the days after, influential Nevada leaders met to strategize long-term solutions to Las Vegans’ concerns about racial injustice. One of the most significant outcomes of this was  the Nevada Supreme Court’s creation of its own racial justice task force, which would operate in an advisory role to the court. The task force would study and identify areas of “racial and economic bias” in Nevada’s criminal justice system then it would submit a report to the court providing its findings and “specific recommendations” for how to eliminate these inequities. The committee was officially established on December 30, 1992, just eight months after the Rodney King riots, and was comprised of twenty members. Each member was chosen from a different professional discipline in order “to be more representative of Nevada’s communities and justice system.” The committee assessed racial inequities in all areas of Nevada’s justice system including: pre-arraignment, jury selection, sentencing, post-judgment, appointment of counsel, juvenile delinquency, as well as law enforcement and community relations. Among other things, committee members held public hearings to involve local citizens and allow them to voice their concerns and experiences about the failings of Nevada’s justice system. The task force also sought participation from law enforcement agencies across the state and community partners. 

In June of 1997, after five years of work, the task force submitted a final report to the Nevada Supreme Court for examination and appropriate action. The report was replete with recommendations since the tasks force’s research indicated “that significant racial and economic inequities do exist in Nevada’s justice system.” Many of the recommendations were  enthusiastically followed. The task force supported the creation of a law school in Nevada “to recruit, diversify, and retain students of and faculty of color,” in part, “to increase minority representation in the legal community.” Recommendations related to the appointment of counsel led to a more detailed study about indigent defense services, which eventually led to the creation of the Nevada Department of Indigent Defense Services.

But the most ambitious recommendations of the report did not receive long-term support. For example, the first recommendation was to create a permanent body to “monitor criminal and civil justice practices across the state of Nevada and to implement recommendations related to disparate treatment within the system.” Many of the other recommendations built off this one. Data collection and analysis came up in a number of the recommendations, but that data was supposed to go to the newly-created body for analysis and further recommendations. The Nevada Legislature did, initially, fund a body to implement the Task Force’s recommendations, but the funding was not renewed, and the implementation committee disbanded. 

This, too, feels parallel. By 2021, it was hard not to shake the feeling of business-as-usual. Though important reforms passed during 2021’s regular session (notably decriminalizing traffic offenses), other significant legislation (like a bill to abolish the death penalty) failed. As 2022 begins, the fresh feel of the 2020 protests is being replaced with new headlines, new twitter threads, and new urgencies. 

As in the past, everyone has seemingly moved on.

This was, perhaps, predictable. Indeed, a number of law professors at the time criticized the 2020 reforms as “sorely lacking” and “allow[ing] police and prosecutors to practice business as usual.” The professors voiced their concern that if legislators were unwilling to enact meaningful reform “in the wake of the widespread condemnation of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, they are unlikely to do so later if public attention moves to other matters.” Notably, even supporters of the 2020 reforms qualified their support as a mere good start. Laura Martin of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada referred to the reforms as “the bare minimum.” Leslie Turner supported the reform bills as “the first step” while the Clark County Black Caucus acknowledged the important progress reflected in the assembly bill, but wrote that “it does not go far enough” and bemoaned “a very big missed opportunity for more justice and community policing.”

As usual, history is instructive. In her recent book, historian Elizabeth Hinton describes “The Cycle,” a recurring pattern of over-policing, protest (or “rebellion,” to use her word), then policy-maker responses. This pattern played out in cities throughout the country since the 1960s.  Starting in the early twentieth century, representative bodies have responded to police misconduct by forming commissions to investigate and write reports. The most famous example is the Kerner Commission report, written in response to the summer of rebellions in 1967. Hinton explains that these reports suffered defects, but they also pointed to systemic problems of exclusion and discrimination. The reports produced important recommendations, but their most important components would go without implementation. These reports, their recommendations, and lawmakers’ inevitable failures to follow through, reflect a general response to rebellions as they occur throughout US history.

With twenty-five years of hindsight, it’s difficult not to see the Nevada Task Force Report in the same light and it’s hard not to see the 2020 protests and the legislative response as part of that pattern. So, it’s understandable that many are not surprised by the ostensible lack of progress. The discussions and issues of today are hard to distinguish from those of three decades ago.

However, we might take heart from what the task force did accomplish. Prominent members of the community, bar, and court spent nearly five years studying the problem of racial and economic bias and tried in earnest to improve our systems. They recognized “that changes will be gradual,” and they charted a path toward progress. We might follow their example. In their final report, the implementation committee urged, “[s]uggestions and alternatives should be implemented to create atmospheres for diffusing misconceptions, recognizing common goals, and providing a fair opportunity and equal treatment for all who enter the courthouse.” We needed these words in 1997 and we need them, still, today.

The views expressed in this article are solely the authors.’

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Randolph M. Fiedler & Jocelyn S. Murphy

Randolph M. Fiedler is a Las Vegas public defender representing death row inmates in their state and federal post-conviction proceedings. He is the Vice President of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty and a past president of Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice. He likes ramen, spam musubi, and reading about ramen and spam musubi. Jocelyn S. Murphy is a Las Vegas public defender representing death row inmates in their state and federal post-conviction proceedings. Jocelyn was born and raised in Las Vegas. She received her B.A. and J.D. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.